Metaphors We Live By
What the context of a media says about how we think about what's communicated.
We left our previous query with a question: What is the progression of extensions that got us to Electric Media?
Part of answering this question is thinking about what is changing as we progress through these media.
To get at this question, let’s turn our attention for the moment to Neil Postman. In Amusing Ourselves To Death, Postman (as you might be able to discern from the title) takes a critical view of the media in his day: television. Written in 1985, he lays out a lot of dynamics that we will return to later, but for now, we pick up one specific idea: resonance.
Postman borrows the idea of resonance from another author to make a case for how, “‘through resonance… a particular statement in a particular context acquires a universal significance.’”1 What does this mean? Concepts from a limited context expand into other contexts through metaphor (rightly or wrongly applied).
Athens becomes a metaphor for intellectual excellence, wherever we find it…2
I grew up in Tennessee, and have heard on more than one occasion how “Nashville is the Athens of the South.” When we say that, we mean that the many higher education institutions in Nashville make it an intellectual center that is like Athens, Greece. But we say “Nashville is the Athens of the South” instead, which is easy to say and think about.
The use of metaphor has its downside: all metaphors break down, as no two situations can ever be completely identical. We don’t deal well with this, as our minds like to hold on to a way of thinking about the world once they get it engrained. In fact, they love to let them spread and stretch to as many circumstances that as they can cover.
Much of this is aimed at reducing cognitive strain, or the amount of effort it takes to think. Our brain “jump[s] to conclusions… if the conclusions are likely to be correct and the cost of an occasional mistake acceptable, and if the jump saves much time and effort.”3
We love metaphors we already know since they save us from learning new things, and we’re ok if they don’t fully fit as long as we feel like they fit.
So what does this have to do with communications media? Postman goes on to share:
Every medium of communication, I am claiming, has resonance, for resonance is metaphor… Whatever the original and limited context of its use may have been, a medium has the power to fly far beyond that context into new and unexpected ones. Because of the way it directs us to organize our minds and integrate our experience of the world, it imposes itself on our consciousness and social institutions in myriad forms. It sometimes has the power to become implicated in our concepts of piety, or goodness, or beauty. And it is always implicated in the ways we define and regulate our ideas of truth.4
So that’s interesting. The media we use, while they may not completely “restructure consciousness,”5 do something else:
Media are metaphors that “impose” themselves on our conscious minds and “regulate our ideas of truth.”
To think about metaphor a bit more, check out this video.
This raises the stakes a bit.
To recap what we’ve learned so far:
One way to think of media is as extensions of ourselves.
Extension by Electric media, in particular, has been a traumatic experience.
Through metaphor, our minds extend the implications of the dominant media of our day. Those implications affect our ideas of “piety, goodness, beauty, and truth,” among other things.
So, to get back to our starting question: What is the progression of extensions that got us to Electric Media?
Each dominant media (from oral communication without writing to literate cultures, and arriving at electric media-dominated communication) impose different dominant metaphors on our lives that affect basic elements of our interactions with one another and with society at large.
These media transitions are so traumatic because they change how we think about piety, goodness, beauty, and truth.
Of course, these metaphors are not limited to even those categories, but for now, this sets the stage for us to explore: What are the facets of the literate-dominated culture we are leaving behind that make the transition to electric-dominated culture so hard?
See you next week as we keep marching down this line of thinking.
Further Reading & Notes:
The title of this post is also the title of a great book Metaphors We Live By. This is a bit of a dense read, but if you like the subject it might be worth checking out!
I referenced Amusing Ourselves to Death all through this post, and if I could tell you to buy one book so far, this would be it. While written in the 1980s about the effects of TV, the reliability to our day and the media we use is haunting. You can also find the book on Hoopla via the Greenville County, SC Library.
As a Star Trek: The Next Generation fan, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the episode Darmok. The Enterprise runs into a species whose language is entirely metaphorical, and things happen. You can read this article about the legacy of that episode here.
I made a passing reference in a footnote to Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy. I have not yet mentioned this read but it has provided ample background information. If you are interested in digging into the very detailed implications of oral culture and the transition to literacy and print, this is the book for you.
I also mention a quote from Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. This is a super dense but great background read about our thinking and biases and lots of other things. If you are ok with around 500 pages of dense writing, go for it. Otherwise, I’ll drop in for some thoughts as necessary.